How to Punctuate with Precision – A Helpful Guide for Indies

How to Punctuate with Precision – A Helpful Guide for Indies

Back in September, I put together a quick reference editing guide to help my fellow indies with their editing woes. I wanted to provide tools that would make the editing process easier. But I also wanted to help indies spot a skillful editor – a daunting task considering the wide variety of options.

That guide was so well received, I thought I’d put together a few more. And what better place to start than with punctuation? It’s the easiest thing to get confused. Punctuation can also be one of the most difficult things to search, depending on your sentence situation. And it’s the thing editors most often leave notes about.

Instead of making up sentences to serve as examples, I’ll use excerpts from my own manuscripts. All of today’s examples come from Dreamers Do Lie, a book I hope to release early next year.

Ways to End a Sentence

Ending a sentence seems simple. But everything gets more complicated as soon as you start throwing creativity into the mix. Luckily, when it comes to ending a sentence, you only have a few options to choose from.

You can end the sentence with a period. (This is your standard, default sentence.)
So this was his eternal resting place.

You can end the sentence with an exclamation point (usually to indicate shock or excitement).
If only charm were all it took to be successful, I’d probably still be livin’!

If someone is asking a question, end the sentence with a question mark.
But if those were tents, how did they withstand the robust winds?

There are two other punctuation marks that can end a sentence in creative fiction.

The first is a dash, which indicates interruption.
“I know my efforts last night hardly make up for your hospitality-“

Second is the ellipsis, which represents an unfinished thought or a character’s dialogue trailing off.
“If, on the other hand, your deceit is proven…”

And that’s it! Ending a sentence any other way is either incorrect or cheating. Creative writers can cheat sometimes, but use that power sparingly (and always for evil).

A quick note here on the ellipsis; it actually has its own ASCII code – meaning it is a unique character. So if you’re formatting your own novel, you probably want to use the actual character instead of manually typing three periods.

Writers often use the ellipsis to indicate a pause in dialogue: “You have… no reason to… torment her!” You can do this, but do it sparingly. It works best when a character is out of breath. In this case, the ellipsis doesn’t end the sentence, so you don’t capitalize what comes after it.

Lets Talk Dialogue Tags

Spoken sentences, for the most part, follow the same punctuation rules as exposition, with a few exceptions.

If a spoken sentence is followed by a dialogue tag (such as he said, or she whispered), then the spoken portion of the sentence ends with a comma instead of a period.
“My name is Arimand,” he answered, lifting his head.

If the dialogue tag proceeds the sentence, then the unspoken part ends in a comma, but the dialogue is capitalized as though it is the start of a sentence.
After a brief silence he said, “If you were a victim of that dark magic, it might explain why you can’t remember anything.”

If a dialogue tag or action beat interrupts a spoken sentence, don’t use a period. Instead, use commas to indicate the whole thing is one sentence.
“Welcome, Arimand,” boomed the voice of the camp’s squat leader, “to Ethilirotha.”

If the spoken dialogue is a question, you still use a question mark. But you don’t capitalize the dialogue tag, since it is still technically part of the same sentence.
“Who are you?” a gruff voice demanded.

The same is true fro exclamation points.
“No, not on the floor!” she exclaimed as he started to fold his legs beneath him.

And also of our friend the ellipsis.
“I doubt anyone wants to drink from these, my lady…” she began.

Since the dash is used to indicate interruption, it usually won’t be followed by a dialogue tag, so the next sentence will start fresh with a capital letter.

Periods – How can you use them?

You’d think this section would be ultra short. Periods come at the end of sentences. And that’s pretty much that.

But periods have one other use in creative fiction. They can be used for ultra emphasis during spoken dialogue. (I’ll actually have to make this example up because I haven’t used it in this particular novel.)
“Do. Not. Speak. When I am talking to you!”

This is actually breaking the rules of punctuation, but you can get away with it as long as you use it sparingly. Periods are simple creatures otherwise. They really only do one thing.

Commas – And where do they go?

Ah commas, the most finicky punctuation mark in existence. Wars have been fought over the placement of commas. Friendships have been lost. I argue with my husband, an English teacher, over where commas should go.

In the simplest terms, commas are used to compartmentalize sentences. Without commas to delineate what parts of a sentence go with which other parts, writing would quickly become undecipherable.

If you’re trying to place a comma and it follows one of the rules below, you should definitely use a comma.

Commas are used to separate lists. This includes narrative descriptions and lists of actions.
Barren wasteland stretched in all directions, dull, drab and dusty.
“But you should know our former deeds, titles and reputations don’t mean a thing in this place.”
Head spinning, stomach clenched, Arimand fought to maintain his focus.

Commas are used after introductory words, phrases or clauses. This includes anything which denotes location or time.
Without the stench and crushing press of bodies, he could breathe easier.
To his left and right, other riverboat passengers struggled to progress.
A moment later, the rowers on Eselt’s raft lifted their poles and makeshift paddles.

Commas are used to separate explanatory phrases from the rest of the sentence, sometimes creating what is called a comathethical. A comathetical interrupts the main idea of the sentence. As a general rule, the sentence should read perfectly and clearly without what is contained between the commas (that’s how you know you have placed the commas correctly).
Several weeks later, when he returned to active duty, we shared the dogwatch on a rainy night.
“But for one night’s grace, while you get used to your new home, you can exchange news of the war above.”
All the work he had done, his dreams and aspirations, meant nothing.

The Hot Comma Debate

This represents only a small portion of the ways commas are used to organize sentences, and is by no means a comprehensive guide. If you’re trying to place a comma and it does not fall into one of the above rules, then you have entered optional comma territory, where souls are broken and peace is an illusion.

When I was growing up we were taught that commas are used to separate clauses which are joined by an ‘and’ or ‘but.’ But punctuation rules often change, and this has now fallen into disuse. People will fiercely argue about whether or not you need these commas. But at the end of the day, their use is up to the discretion of the author. And if it’s not causing confusion, chances are you can live without the comma.

In the end, consistency is key (unlike my examples). If you favor one form or the other, no one will really notice the difference (unless they wage the punctuation wars themselves).
He sniffed it suspiciously, but smelled only leather.
The sun had long since disappeared but a spark of light nestled in the center of the precarious structures.

Likewise, commas can be used to indicate pauses in spoken dialogue. In that case, it’s up to the author to indicate their desired inflection by the way they place their commas.
“So each of Hell’s rivers carries a different power?”
“So, each of Hell’s rivers carries a different power?”
To pause or not? The answer is up to you!

We could talk about the Oxford Comma. We could talk about it until we all turned blue in the face and the universe died. So it’s probably better to leave that debate for another day.

Semicolons – the most misunderstood punctuation mark

Semicolons are simple creatures, but almost no one understands how to use them properly. As a result, lots of people avoid them – which is fine. Even traditionally published books can’t seem to agree on how semicolons could be used. But according to official sources, semicolons really only serve two purposes.

If the items of a list contain commas, then you use a semicolon to separate the list items instead of a comma. This happens so infrequently in fiction, that I actually don’t have an example in my work.

The other purpose of semicolons is to separate two heavily related independent clauses that aren’t separated by a conjunction (but or and, for example). And this is where they are most heavily misused. If the independent clauses on either side of a semicolon can’t stand on their own, then the semicolon cannot be used to connect them.
The party shared a hungry desperation; a bounty like this would fill their bellies for days.
Granting her a title made sense; she looked like nobility.

Colons – the semicolon’s big brother

Writers don’t use a lot of colons. Mostly because we use semicolons where we should be using colons. Like their little brother, they really only serve two purposes in creative fiction.

Colons are used to introduce a list. (Not semicolons, which is a common mistake.)
The previous day came flooding back: the surprise attack, the empty hours on the crowded riverboat, the wasteland.

Colons are used to draw attention to a specific word or phrase.
In a place of prominence across the collar were a set of golden stars, clear representations of his former namesake: the Morning Star.

Don’t forget the em dash

The em dash is something of a mystery. I think lots of people aren’t aware of them or, if they ever were, have forgotten about them. They can be used to set aside a portion of a sentence in the same way we do with commas. This is especially helpful when you’ve already got a sentence broken into sections by commas and don’t want it to sound like either a run on sentence or a hot mess.

Corvala has long kept the four surrounding empires – Vesald in the north, Onroth in the east, Iyrnt in the south, and Nywor in the west – from devolving into endless war.

As if firing on his own people hadn’t been bad enough, he’d also managed to lose their top diplomatic liaison – the Council’s new favorite cultural icon – to a crazed lunatic who wanted to do gods knew what with her. (This one is actually from my latest WIP, Song of the Spheres, because I couldn’t find a similar example in Dreamers Do Lie.)

Like the ellipsis, the em dash has its own ASCII code and is distinctly different from a regular dash. It’s about twice the length, in fact. Word has an option that allows you to automatically convert typing — into an em dash, if you find that short hand easier to work with.

And there we have it! It may not be the ultimate guide to punctuation, but it should get you through a lot of sticky situations.

If you’d like to take a more in-depth look at this topic, or if your question simply isn’t covered here, remember you can find a more robust tutorial at either Grammarist or Grammar Girl.

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